Tuesday’s event was supposed to be the big one, the final showdown before actual voting begins. If, like me, you’ve watched every minute of every Democratic debate so far - and here’s wishing we’d all get a life - you know the unfortunate truths:
- The candidates are what they have become. There’s not a scintilla of insight regarding the front-runners that wasn’t clear after the first debate last June.
The Democrats’ debate performance looks increasingly like a traveling road show - meant to be sampled by curious crowds at each stop, but not by the same TV audience over and over. The actors know their lines. They’ve polished and trimmed. A few players have left the cast and one new billionaire recently stepped in, but for the most part it’s a pat performance.
- The basic format is fine for one or two debates, but it doesn’t deliver month after month. The Democratic National Committee has fixated on the rules for qualifying but ignored the need for alternative formats.
A single-topic debate was considered but rejected by the DNC. Other changes have been floated - including a few by me in this space - but party leaders won’t budge. That’s unfortunate because voters would benefit by seeing if these candidates can go off-script, if they can sing as well as dance.
- Aggression pleases commentators but not voters. After earlier debates there was a lot of pundit-speak about who delivered meaningful blows and who was able “to take a punch.” It’s an ugly way of describing Democratic politics, plus it doesn’t work. The hardest hitter, California Sen. Kamala Harris, has quit the race. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was another early aggressor, as was former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He’s out and she’s fading away.
The four front-runners wisely mind their manners. Former Vice President Joe Biden saves his aggression for the end of each debate when he bellows at the audience, “This is America!” (Sounds like Eddie Murphy, “I’m Gumby, damn it!) Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren lets facts, figures and a plethora of plans do her talking. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is an articulate choir boy. Only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is a bit gruff - but he’s not nasty. He’s more like a lovable uncle.
- Defeating Trump is important, dwelling on how is not. The most overworked and bankrupt line of questioning in each debate is some variation of “Why are you the best candidate to beat Trump?” The answer, to the extent there is one, will be found in the sum of everything said in all debates, on the campaign trail and, ultimately, at the polls. But there is no way whatsoever to meaningfully address the question in a single debate-stage statement.
Yet, the question keeps getting asked. It forces Buttigieg to remind us he’s a Midwesterner who served in Afghanistan; Biden to note that he’s experienced and sat at Obama’s side; Warren to point out that she and Klobuchar have won every election they’ve been in; Sanders to restate the need for sweeping social and political change. Truth is, they can each beat Trump but only one will get to show us how it’s done. - Rooting for gaffes isn’t fun, or particularly useful. At one point on the stage in Des Moines, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar couldn’t quite recall the name of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. After the debate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared to rebuff Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ offer to shake hands. So what?
The night’s Big Deal was supposed to be whether Sanders did or did not once tell Warren that a woman couldn’t be elected president. If ever there was an inconsequential he said/she said issue, this is it. Suffice it to say, Sanders and Warren are friends and, yes, a woman can and will be elected president - in 2020 or soon thereafter.
- Moderators keep messing up. Right near the top, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders about “attacking” Biden over his voting record on Iraq. Moments later Blitzer asked Klobuchar about why she has “publicly questioned Mayor Buttigieg’s experience.” These are not appropriate debate questions, they are transparent attempts to bait the candidates. Moderators have persisted in this for seven straight debates.
One bright spot this time was the valiant effort by Abby Phillip of CNN and Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register to control the clock. Since June the candidates have deliberately stretched their answers and squeezed more time, despite the presence of warning lights on stage and gentle pleas from moderators. Klobuchar is one of the biggest abusers; Biden is the most respectful of the rules limiting time. The interruptions by Phillip and Pfannenstiel might have annoyed some viewers, but they had no choice. These Demo-cats have proved hard to herd.
The best that can be said for the seven debates is that the whole might prove to be greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the grind - as redundant as it’s been in some ways, yet incomplete in others - is necessary to confirm who is best able to go all the way to November. Maybe the best we could have expected from the debates so far was that a huge field, that reached 25 at one point, would be cut to a more manageable roster of four or five for the next rounds.
But after seven debates Democrats have pretty much given us a Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.